On July 10, a record crowd converged at the Union Station courtyard to enjoy the fourth annual East LA Meets Napa. The event benefited AltaMed Health Services Corporation, which has been providing health care to minorities and economically disadvantaged Southern Californians since 1969. The event featured over 40 booths, including Napa Valley wines from Latino winemakers and food from some of L.A.’s most celebrated Latin chefs. Here are my eight favorite tastes from East LA Meets Napa, in alphabetical order.
Birrieria Chalio Birria (Very Hot!)
The squeeze bottle tried to warn me with a “Very Hot!” label. Birrieria Chalio’s stewed lamb meat was gamy, flavorful and would have been satisfying on its own, but a squeeze of “Very Hot!” sauce gave the meat a jolt that latched on to my lips and wouldn’t let go. Javier Cabral “The Glutster” told me that lamb birria is typical of Zacatecas and is nearly as nearly as popular as the better-known goat birria.
Cook’s Tortas Corn Cake
In Ricardo Diaz’s Monterey Park restaurant – Cook’s Tortas – Great Great Grandmother’s Corn Cake is a moist cross between cornbread and corn pudding. In miniature, the cakes are denser but still delicious, with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar and sweet berry jam thumprints.
Hacienda San Ysidro Coconut Shrimp with Pineapple Jalapeno Salsa
Chef Alfonso Ramirez’s “Mexican cuisine with attitude” wasn’t as bold as the motto, but his coconut shrimp with pineapple jalapeno salsa was a solid take on a played-out dish. This mainly had to do with the sweet jumbo shrimp and the fact that the shellfish weren’t desiccated in a deep-fryer. The chunky sauce had a sweet-spicy dynamic and wasn’t cloying.
La Casita Mexicana Chile en Nogada
Chile en nogada is a signature dish at Jaime Martin del Campo and Ramiru Arvizu’s stellar Bell restaurant. There, they use smoky roasted pasilla peppers stuffed with ground beef, dried fruit, walnuts, and candied cactus, then top the peppers with pecan cream sauce and burst-when-you-bite pomegranate seeds. At East LA Meets Napa, Arvizu used the smaller jalapeno, which added some extra kick. On a previous visit to La Casita Mexicana, Jaime Martin del Campo said, “Sweet and spicy, this dish was first cooked in 1821, when the Mexican flag was established; it has the three colors of the Mexican flag: red, white and green.”
La Casita Mexicana Flan
La Casita Mexicana is best known for its complex savory offerings, but it’s always a good idea to save room for dessert. At East LA Meets Napa, Arvizu dispensed textbook mini-flans that were custardy but firm, but great caramelization on the dome.
Porto’s Dulce de Leche Kisses
My stomach was suffering from mass confusion, skipping between sweet and savory. Still, it was impossible to resist a dulce de leche kiss from Glendale’s famed Cuban bakery. The buttery shell is shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss and the dulce de leche core is decadent but always worthwhile.
At last year’s East LA Meets Napa, John Rivera Sedlar debuted his now-lauded modern Latin restaurant. This year, he offered fragrant, flower-pressed tortilla are ethereal, seared on the grill until crisp at the edges yet still ultra-light. Sedlar and his Rivera crew dressed the seemingly simple tortillas with tangy salsa verde and fresh shrimp. Terrific, as always.
Seta Coconut Caramel Custard
The past two years, East LA Meets Napa has introduced L.A. to off-the-beaten-track Whittier restaurants. Last year it was Hacienda San Isidro. This year, it’s three-month-old Setá, a contemporary restaurant that blends American, Spanish and Asian cuisines. Executive Chef Hugo Molina made his name in Pasadena, and he was on hand, but it was pastry chef Aricia Alvarado’s dessert that impressed me the most, featuring layers of coconut and caramel custards, plus a crunchy candied nut shower.
The top prize for presentation definitely goes to Attila the Flan’s milk jelly flowers. Owner Jenny Martin demonstrated remarkable artistry underneath her clear gelatinous domes.